Once more, however, as in the time of Dreyfus, the republican forces rallied to meet the threat, and once more, after the crisis had been surmounted, France moved to the left.
Edouard Daladier (1884-1970), Radical premier, resigned, and a coalition of all parties except the royalists, socialists, and communists formed a national government, including all living former premiers. But the franc was again falling in value. In 1935 a ministry in which the dominant figure was Pierre Laval (1883-1945), a former socialist turned conservative, attempted to cut back government expenditures by measures similar to those that had worked a decade earlier under Poincare; this time, however, they did not work.
The forces of the left responded by forming a Popular Front, which for the first time linked together the Radical Socialist, Socialist, and Communist parties. It also had the backing of CGT, which had temporarily healed the schism between communist and noncommunist unions. In the elections of 1936 the Popular Front won, with the socialists at the top. The premiership was accordingly offered to a socialist, the Jewish intellectual Leon Blum (1872-1950).
The Popular Front came to power with a mandate from voters who wanted the government to distribute wealth more equitably. In June 1936 the government introduced an ambitious program of reform. Labor gained a forty-hour workweek, higher wages, vacations with pay, and provision for compulsory arbitration of labor disputes. The Bank of France, the railroads, and the munitions industry were all partially nationalized. Quasifascistic groups like the Camelots du Roi and Croix de Feu were ordered to disband.
Impressive as this program was on paper, events conspired to block its successful implementation. The communists did not really cooperate, for they refused to participate in the Blum cabinet and sniped at it in parliament and in the press. Business took fright at the growth of the CGT and at the effectiveness of sit-down strikes of French industrial workers in June 1936—the first widespread use of this formidable economic weapon through which struck plants were occupied by the striking workers, preventing the owners from using their weapon, the lockout.
The nation was soon bitterly divided between partisans and enemies of the Popular Front. Business and farming classes were traditionally reluctant to pay income taxes, which would have to be raised to meet the costs of social services; the economy was not geared to labor-saving devices; there were competing demands on the nation’s money.
Capital, however, was rapidly leaving the country to be invested or deposited abroad, and the monied class would not subscribe to the huge defense loans that were essential if the French armed forces were to prepare for the war that seemed to be approaching. Faced by mounting opposition, Blum was obliged to step down as premier in favor of a Radical in 1937. The Popular Front disintegrated.
The morale of the French sagged badly after the collapse of the Popular Front. Under the mounting international tensions of 1938 and 1939, the Radical Socialist premier, Daladier, kept France on the side of Britain in unsteady opposition to the Rome-Berlin Axis. Various measures of retrenchment—including virtual abandonment of the forty-hour week—kept the French economy from collapse. But the workers resented the failure of the Popular Front, and as late as November 1938 almost achieved a general strike, which the government combated by putting the railway workers under military orders.
The “have” classes, on the other hand, were outraged by Blum’s measures. Many of them were convinced that their salvation lay in a French totalitarian state. The France that was confronted with war in 1939 was not only inadequately armed; it was also psychologically and spiritually divided, uncertain of what it was to fight for or against.
Many in France had relied on their great empire to restore the flagging morale and material capabilities of the nation. Colonial troops, particularly from Senegal and North Africa, had helped to replenish the diminished ranks of the army during World War I and might do so again. Enthusiasts spoke of France as a nation of 100 million, which included the populations of the colonial territories.
But the colonial populations were beginning to desire home rule or independence, especially in Algeria, Senegal, and French Indochina. Although some leaders of the French left urged concessions to such desires, little was conceded. In 1936 the Popular Front government negotiated treaties with Syria and Lebanon, granting them independence with many reservations, so as to safeguard the primacy of French interests.
But this compromise was too much for the Chamber of Deputies, which refused to approve the treaties. Perhaps no policy pursued in the interwar years could have averted the disintegration of the French Empire that occurred during and after World War II, but the unimaginative policy that prevailed did nothing to reconcile the nationalists among the French colonial peoples.